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In Ethiopia, one man's model for a just society

Zumra Nuru founded a village based on ideals of equality. It's now lauded by leaders of all stripes.

(Page 2 of 2)

Model for reducing poverty?

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They returned in the early 1990s only to discover their neighbors had been given their land.

They managed to get back only 43 acres – not enough to support a growing community with farming. "So we began weaving for a living," says Nuru.

Weaving has become one of the symbols of Awra Amba.

In Ethiopian society, weaving is women's work, yet men and women work side by side here in Awra Amba.

The hand-woven scarves, clothes, and blankets are sold in the village shop. Awra Amba will not accept donations, but offers its products for sale.

Prices are low, but so is supply, partly because the village has a shortage of modern weaving machinery and training.

"Weaving is not so profitable because we are not experts," he says. "We are all originally farmers."

Fortunately, their reputation for being honest is also paying off. Donkeys laden with bags of grains wait beside the village grain mills to be unloaded.

"Neighboring farmers prefer to use our mills because they trust us not to cheat them," says Asnake Gebeyehu, 18, a native of Awra Amban who served as an English-language translator for foreign visitors on a recent day.

Awra Ambans work seven days a week and shun religious holidays.

Ideals are paying off

Their ideals have literally paid off.

The villagers are well fed and clothed. Children play instead of working.

"So many Christian and Muslim leaders from all over [Ethiopia's northern Amhara region] and some from outside have visited the village because it is very famous in its endeavor to eliminate poverty," says Mulgeta Wuletaw, a regional government administrator and member of parliament.

Still, the village hopes to earn more money in order to build potable water and sewage systems, pave the road, and create an education fund for the children.

Gebeyehu is one of eight Awra Ambans who will be attending university this year and he credits his village for that. "Education is very important to this community," he says.

The village is unique not only for its attitudes toward gender, religion, and education, but for the social security it provides its members in need.

Village social security

There's a home for the elderly with 24-hour care and a committee that helps out new mothers, who also get three months of maternity leave. Early and forced marriage are forbidden.

The village's success has made it a subject of numerous studies.

"This is an extraordinary initiative within a traditional and conservative community," says Mohammed Musa, a rural development consultant who prepared a case study on the village for the World Bank. "It's a good example for other Ethiopian communities – and even beyond Ethiopia – because of its gender equality, its work ethic, and its social security system."

Today 96 families live in closely built mud huts.

Nuru said more people want to join, but there is not enough space.

Now, after years of being ostracized, Awra Amba is seen as having a positive effect on its conservative region.

A newsletter published by the regional state health bureau last year credited the village with triggering "amazing change in the Amhara region."